Carl Trueman’s CRT, Conclusion: Why the Critiques Keep Missing the Mark

In our last post, I addressed Dr. Carl Trueman’s claim that Critical Race Theory (CRT) assumes the premise that “life is a zero-sum game.” I further critiqued his understanding of CRT and racial “power” dynamics, digging into the ideological history of “Black Power” vs. “Liberal Integrationsim.”

Today we move onto his sixth claim and conclude this series. (I will note again that these posts are intended to be read in order; please see Part 1 for the general introduction to the series.)

And, last, (6) CRT claims to offer a “comprehensive explanation for all the evils we suffer.”

To my lights, the most appropriate answer to Dr. Trueman’s final claim here is simply, “Where?” Where does any CRT scholar claim this? In what way does CRT ideology even suggest this to Trueman? I simply have no idea.

My best guess is that Trueman is conflating a totalizing interpretation of, for example, traditional Marxism, or maybe even the Frankfurt School, with Critical Race Theory. This would be consistent with the error of most of his other claims, so probably a good guess. As stated before, his critiques, though weak and fundamentally unargued, might be better suited for some figures in the European critical tradition, including some of their White American Left offspring. If you recall from Part 3, CRT scholar Robert Williams offered a critique of Critical Legal Studies’ (CLS’s) Eurocentric reading of “rights” discourse that proved similarly illuminating for understanding Dr. Trueman’s failed critiques of CRT. Again, we read,

CLS’s attack reflects Eurocentric readings of peoples of color’s use of rights rhetoric. A discursive practice of abandonment dismissing minority peoples as irrelevant because of their anachronistic clinging to a false consciousness on rights can easily result from the acts of privileging and delegitimation which ground such Eurocentred readings. CLS’s attacks on rights discourse demonstrate the perils of a disengaged theoretical stance toward discourse unmediated by historical appreciation of the tradition from which a discursive practice is projected. (“Taking Rights Aggressively,” p. 121)

As before, Trueman’s claims throughout his article, including this final claim above, betray little awareness that CRT emerged principally from the abolitionist and civil rights tradition, though incorporating aspects of the critical tradition of social and legal interrogation. That is, in Williams’ words, Trueman appears to be working from a “disengaged theoretical stance” lacking an “appreciation of the tradition” from which the ideas he seeks to critique were born. With his “Eurocentric readings of people of color’s … rhetoric,” he completely misses the very marks which distinguish CRT as a project of real-life liberation, not just a riddle in Continental philosophy.

Misapprehension of the Traditional Civil Rights Discourse

And, really, this is true of all of these White pastors, professors, and public agitators who have anointed themselves able critics of their brothers and sisters engaging in the work of antiracism. They simply do not approach the subject—especially as related to CRT—with an intellectual awareness or understanding of the civil rights tradition, nor an experiential understanding of its purpose and power, and certainly not with a conscious personal investment in its long-term success.

For example, when they hear of “oppressor” and “oppressed,” they are haunted by the specter of Karl Marx or Chairman Mao, rather than recalling Frederick Douglass’ description of America as a “society divided into two classes, as oppressed and oppressor” (Selected Speeches and Writings, p. 629) or the message of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who stated plainly that

[t]he dilemma of white America is the source and cause of the dilemma of Negro America. Just as the ambivalence of white Americans grows out of their oppressor status, the predicament of Negro Americans grows out of their oppressed status. (Where Do We Go From Here?, p. 109; see also HERE)

When they hear of “intersectionality,” they think of some Foucauldian power matrix they got from a YouTube video or some sort of “oppression olympics” parody; they don’t think of Sojourner Truth’s pregnant query, “Ain’t I a woman?” or Anna Julia Cooper writing of the Black Woman that,

[s]he is confronted by both a woman question and a race problem, and is as yet an unknown or an unacknowledged factor in both. …Not many can more sensibly realize and more accurately tell the weight and the fret of the ‘long dull pain’ than the open-eyed but hitherto voiceless Black Woman of America. (“Our Raison D’etre” [1892])

When they hear of “White privilege,” they think of “White guilt” or a silver spoon in every White baby’s mouth; they don’t think of W.E.B. Du Bois’ “wages of whiteness,” viz.,

that the white group of laborers, while they received a low wage, were compensated in part by a sort of public and psychological wage. They were given public deference and titles of courtesy because they were white. They were admitted freely with all classes of white people to public functions, public parks, and the best schools. The police were drawn from their ranks, and the courts, dependent on their votes, treated them with such leniency as to encourage lawlessness. Their vote selected public officials, and while this had small effect upon the economic situation, it had great effect upon their personal treatment and the deference shown them. White schoolhouses were the best in the community, and conspicuously placed, and they cost anywhere from twice to ten times as much per capita as the colored schools. The newspapers specialized on news that flattered the poor whites and almost utterly ignored the Negro except in crime and ridicule. (Black Reconstruction in America, loc. 16485)

In fact, when they hear the word “whiteness” itself, they imagine only White supremacy “in reverse,” asking “what if I said the same about ‘Blackness’?,” rather than thinking of 100 year-old analyses like Du Bois’ in “The White World” or “The Souls of White Folk”—including discussions like the following:

The discovery of personal whiteness among the world’s peoples is a very modern thing,—a nineteenth and twentieth century matter, indeed. The ancient world would have laughed at such a distinction. The Middle Age regarded skin color with mild curiosity; and even up into the eighteenth century we were hammering our national manikins into one, great, Universal Man, with fine frenzy which ignored color and race even more than birth. Today we have changed all that, and the world in a sudden, emotional conversion has discovered that it is white and by that token, wonderful!

This assumption that of all the hues of God whiteness alone is inherently and obviously better than brownness or tan leads to curious acts; even the sweeter souls of the dominant world as they discourse with me on weather, weal, and woe are continually playing above their actual words an obligato of tune and tone, saying:

“My poor, un-white thing! Weep not nor rage. I know, too well, that the curse of God lies heavy on you. Why? That is not for me to say, but be brave! Do your work in your lowly sphere, praying the good Lord that into heaven above, where all is love, you may, one day, be born—white!”

I do not laugh. I am quite straight-faced as I ask soberly:

“But what on earth is whiteness that one should so desire it?” Then always, somehow, some way, silently but clearly, I am given to understand that whiteness is the ownership of the earth forever and ever, Amen!

… Wave on wave, each with increasing virulence, is dashing this new religion of whiteness on the shores of our time. Its first effects are funny: the strut of the Southerner, the arrogance of the Englishman amuck, the whoop of the hoodlum who vicariously leads your mob. Next it appears dampening generous enthusiasm in what we once counted glorious; to free the slave is discovered to be tolerable only in so far as it freed his master! Do we sense somnolent writhings in black Africa or angry groans in India or triumphant banzais in Japan? “To your tents, O Israel!” These nations are not white! (Darkwater: Voices from Within the Veil, pp. 16 – 17)

When they hear of “standpoint theory” or the “unique voice of color,” they think of the theoretical debates in their philosophy or apologetics courses on “truth,” “objectivity,” and “relativism”; they don’t think of the “double consciousness” or “second sight” of subordinated peoples, the

sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity. One ever feels his twoness—an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder. (W.E.B Du Bois, “Of Our Spiritual Strivings”)

And, finally—and what I think may lie at the root of it all—when they hear of “racism,” they think only of personal hatred, “bias,” or “prejudice” toward individuals based upon skin color, rather than the disproportionately subordinated circumstances of people of color following 400 years of marginalization for the purpose of exploitation.

That is, most White Americans—even the most intelligent—seem to get the whole story backwards.

“Racism” as Understood in the Black Abolitionist and Civil Rights Tradition

In his final book before his assassination in 1968, Dr. King asks, “What is racism?” “Dr. George Kelsey,” he answers, “in a profound book entitled Racism and the Christian Understanding of Man, states that:”

Racism is a faith. It is a form of idolatry… In its early modern beginnings, racism was a justificatory device. It did not emerge as a faith. It arose as an ideological justification for the constellations of political and economic power which were expressed in colonialism and slavery. But gradually the idea of the superior race was heightened and deepened in meaning and value so that it pointed beyond the historical structures of relation, in which it emerged, to human existence itself.” (Where Do We Go From Here?, p. 73)

Racism, that is, is not a natural human in-group/out-group, like prefers like, dynamic; it is a very specific and historically conditioned social relation. Further, racism was not the cause of, for example, African slavery and exploitation, but rather the result; racism, with its accompanying systems and ideas, was manufactured to justify African slavery, then to justify continued group-based exploitation, and now continues to justify the vast racial disparities which were the predicted result of these systems.

Frederick Douglass had already spelled this out brilliantly in his 1881 article, “The Color Line,” which we quoted in Part 2 of this series:

During all the years of their bondage, the slave master had a direct interest in discrediting the personality of those he held as property. Every man who had a thousand dollars so invested had a thousand reasons for painting the black man as fit only for slavery. Having made him the companion of horses and mules, he naturally sought to justify himself by assuming that the Negro was not much better than a mule. The holders of twenty hundred million dollars’ worth of property in human chattels procured the means of influencing press, pulpit, and politician, and through these instrumentalities they belittled our virtues and magnified our vices, and have made us odious in the eyes of the world. (Frederick Douglass: Selected Speeches and Writings, p. 652)

Du Bois writes of coming to the same realization in his 1940 Dusk of Dawn:

I think it was in Africa that I came more clearly to see the close connection between race and wealth. The fact that even in the minds of the most dogmatic supporters of race theories and believers in the inferiority of colored folk to white, there was a conscious or unconscious determination to increase their incomes by taking full advantage of this belief. And then gradually this thought was metamorphosed into a realization that the income-bearing value of race prejudice was the cause and not the result of theories of race inferiority; that particularly in the United States the income of the Cotton Kingdom based on black slavery caused the passionate belief in Negro inferiority and the determination to enforce it even by arms. (p. 65)

Economist and sociologist Oliver Cromwell Cox likewise wrote in his magisterial, Caste, Class, and Race (1948), that,

If we had to put our finger upon the year which marked the beginning of modern race relations we should select 1493-94. This is the time when total disregard for the human rights and physical power of the non-Christian peoples of the world, the colored peoples, was officially assumed by the first two great colonizing European nations. Pope Alexander bull of demarcation issued under Spanish pressure on May 3, 1493, and its revision by the Treaty of Tordesillas (June 7, 1494), arrived at through diplomatic negotiations between Spain and Portugal, put all the heathen peoples and their resources—that is to say, especially the colored peoples of the world—at the disposal of Spain and Portugal.

This, then, is the beginning of modern race relations. It was not an abstract, natural, immemorial feeling of mutual antipathy between groups, but rather a practical exploitative relationship with its socio-attitudinal facilitation—at that time only nascent race prejudice. (Loc. 8548)

And, finally, to return to Dr. King:

It seems to be a fact of life that human beings cannot continue to do wrong without eventually reaching out for some rationalization to clothe their acts in the garments of righteousness. And so, with the growth of slavery, men had to convince themselves that a system which was so economically profitable was morally justifiable. The attempt to give moral sanction to a profitable system gave birth to the doctrine of white supremacy. (Where Do We Go From Here?, p. 76-77)

Summary of the Traditional Discourse

As it became increasingly clear to the colonists invading the “New World,” committing genocide on its inhabitants, that Africans were not only capable farmers, but also in abundant “supply,” with the trade in humans itself quite profitable, efforts were made to separate this group of people from those of European descent, cobbled together from many tribes, nations, and tongues—a people with no previous sense of Pan-Africanism.

The fact is, the labour of slaves comes so cheap to the avaricious usurpers, and is [as they think] of such great utility to the country where it exists, that those who are actuated by sordid avarice only, overlook the evils, which will as sure as the Lord lives, follow after the good. (Walker’s Appeal, p. 5)

By offering protections to indentured servants from “Christian” nations and removing protections for those from “pagan” nations, leaders were able to quell organized rebellions by peeling the European poor away from those with whom they’d formerly worked side by side, and ultimately accorded life-long servitude to those of African descent alone—they and their children. A class to be exploited, stolen from Africa, separated from family, religion, and hallowed soil, the “Negro” became the, comparatively, ideal subject of colonial exploitation. At first this was justified by the distinction between “Christian” and “pagan”; later it would be by phenotype, “proving” them uniquely suitable for heat and toil; then it would become their supposed stupidity, lack of culture, and need of white fathers; then the so-called Curse of Ham, the example of the Patriarchs, and the writings of the Apostle Paul; then the development of the pseudoscientific field of racial biology, including categorization according to assumed historic development through climate, separate creation, or evolution.

Finally, this intentional marginalization was perpetuated through insidious racial stereotypes developed as justifications, including common tropes like the hyper-sexualized black male with a penchant for pure white women, seductive black women preying on white men, child-like “negro” mental capacities causing both intellectual dullness and erratic fits of rage, inborn laziness due to centuries in the jungle, and other such insipid fabrications.

In 1829, David Walker wrote of the ideas and justifications for keeping men and women in bonds in his own day:

We would be injurious to society and ourselves, if tyrants should loose their unjust hold on us!!! That if we were free we would not work, but would live on plunder or theft!!!! that we are the meanest and laziest set of beings in the world!!!!! That they are obliged to keep us in bondage to do us good!!!!!!–That we are satisfied to rest in slavery to them and their children!!!!!! … That if we were set free in America, we would involve the country in a civil war, which assertion is altogether at variance with our feeling or design…. (Walker’s Appeal, p. 74)

Likewise, Douglass, following the emancipation of slaves sought by David Walker, noted the continuation of these stereotypes and even their spread throughout the nation:

It is said that physically, morally, socially and religiously he is in a condition vastly more deplorable than was his condition as a slave; that he has not proved himself so good a master to himself as his old master was to him; that he is gradually, but surely, sinking below the point of industry, good manners and civilization to which he attained in a state of slavery; that his industry is fitful; that his economy is wasteful; that his honesty is deceitful; that his morals are impure; that his domestic life is beastly; that his religion is fetichism, and his worship is simply emotional; and that, in a word, he is falling into a state of barbarism.

Such is the distressing description of the emancipated Negro as drawn by his enemies and as it is found reported in the journals of the South. Unhappily, however, it is a description not confined to the South. It has gone forth to the North. It has crossed the ocean; I met with it in Europe. (Frederick Douglass: Selected Speeches and Writings, p. 715)

Though in different forms and at times for different purposes, this dynamic has played out over and over throughout American history, consistently marginalizing non-White people-groups. Douglass speaks of the same with respect to our republican brothers and sisters to the South, in 1867:

When the United States coveted a part of Mexico, and sought to wrest from that sister Republic her coveted domain, some of you remember how our press teemed from day to day with charges of Mexican inferiority—How they were assailed as a worn-out race; how they were denounced as a weak, worthless, indolent, and turbulent nation, given up to the sway of animal passions, totally incapable of self-government, and how excellent a thing we were told it would be for civilization if the strong beneficent arms of the Anglo-Saxon could be extended over them; and how, with our usual blending of piety with plunder, we justified our avarice by appeals to the hand-writing of Divine Providence. All this, I say, you remember, for the facts are but little more than a dozen years old. (Frederick Douglass: Selected Speeches and Writings, p. 482)

And let us not fool ourselves; many of the very same manufactured and encultured perceptions live on to this very day. The ease by which politicians and pastors were able to retell the Civil Rights movement as mayhem, violence, and the breakdown of social order should cause no wonder. It is no wonder that millions of Americans embraced the “Law and Order” movement, the “War on Drugs,” and continued church and neighborhood segregation, and still do today. And it should still be of no wonder that the vast inequities and disparities in this society—along the very same color line created for exploitation—are continually explained away by Americans and evangelicals as the fault of so-called morally degraded, hyper-sexualized, lazy welfare queens and criminals; that is, the Black community itself is to blame. Racist ideas continue to justify unjust circumstances.

And, finally, as discussed in Part 2 of this series, it is no wonder that following the Civil War, the abandonment of Reconstruction, and 100 years of both legal and de facto nationwide Jim Crow that the average “white” child is born into a family with ten to twenty times the wealth of his “black” peer, is twice as likely to live through infancy, 2.5 times as likely to live in a two-parent household (though will likely spend less time with his father than his black peer), is much more likely to go to a well-funded, academically superior school, is more likely to be put into advanced coursework as opposed to remedial or special needs coursework, regardless of ability; the white child is likely to live in de facto segregated neighborhoods, attend de facto segregated schools, and worship in de facto segregated churches, is much more likely to make it to college without being incarcerated, even if he commits the same or similar crimes as his black peer, is more likely to graduate from college, is much less likely to be shot and killed by a police officer, is more likely to secure a job, even with precisely the same resume, is likely to be paid more for the same work, is likely to accumulate 3 times the net worth of his black peer, is likely to have significantly more wealth mobility, while his black peer is more likely to spend what he has to care for his aging parents, is much more likely to own a home, will likely have greater access to healthcare, and the care his black peer does receive is likely to be lower quality, and in the end, the white child is even likely to outlive his black peer. (See, “Confronting Racial Disparities in America, From Cradle to Grave: A Reading List.”)

Conclusion

This is the actual traditional Black abolitionist and civil rights understanding of racism, as opposed to the whitewashed version told and retold by parents, schools, and churches for decades. And it puts the subordinated social and economic circumstances of people of color at the forefront. To speak crudely, what primarily afflicted the slave was not the internal feelings of his master, but the social structure that perpetually fixed him on one end of the whip.

But all this prejudice sinks into insignificance in my mind, when compared with the enormous iniquity of the system which is its cause—the system that sold my four sisters and my brothers into bondage—and which calls in its priests to defend it even from the Bible! (Frederick Douglass, Selected Speeches and Writings, pp. 3 – 4)

In other words, structurally subordinated racial circumstances have always been the central evil of racism, not so much personal “bias,” “prejudice,” or hateful thoughts and feelings—though certainly wicked and soul crushing. Unfortunately, this has proven controversial to far too many Christians.

I contend that if these White pastors, professors, and public agitators critiquing CRT had first engaged with the true abolitionist and civil rights tradition, or at least with the people of color they’ve decided to attack, they’d likely not have their hair on fire at the sight of Critical Race Theory. They would see that it is, more than anything, an extension of the traditional discourse, though deepened and modified to explain the rapid retrenchment observed following the Civil Rights Era. And this explanation required tools and techniques suited to critiquing a legal system which now claimed to be race-neutral, color-blind, and mere objective preservers of American meritocracy. In the words of its founders, Critical Race Theory was developed as a

project … uncovering how law was a constitutive element in race itself: in other words, how law constructed race. Racial power, in our view, was not simply—or even primarily—a product of biased decision-making on the part of judges, but instead, the sum total of the pervasive ways in which law shapes and is shaped by “race relations” across the social plane. Laws produced racial power … through myriad legal rules … that continued to reproduce structures and practices of racial domination. … With such an analysis in hand, critical race theory allows us to better understand how racial power can be produced even from within a liberal discourse that is relatively autonomous from organized vectors of racial power. (Critical Race Theory: The Key Writings That Formed a Movement, p. XXV)

And while one may certainly disagree with this approach, the hostile and flailing reactions that have become so common are indicative of something far different than just variance on approach to antiracism.

Last, in addition to the Eurocentric reading discussed at the beginning of this piece and the ignorance and distortion of the civil rights tradition discussed at the end, I continue to believe that much of the conflict being sniffed out by these pastors and professors is not primarily between Critical Race Theory and our historic Faith, but rather between two secular and competing social theories. The modern, dominant, Western social theory of “abstract liberalism”—including ideas and values like color-blindness, equity as formal equality, “race-neutral” and “objective” ideals of “merit,” radical individualism, etc.—is not drawn from the pages of Scripture, but is, rather, a contingent artifact forged in the furnace of history. We can study its development in American society as an historically conditioned social theory, and we can even see how it has contributed to subjugating whole people-groups and continues to deny any means of repair. Unfortunately, this predominating social philosophy has been coupled so tightly with Christianity by many Americans that exposing its errors, along with the evils it produces and sustains, feels to many like an attack on Christianity itself. The appropriate response, in my opinion, is to begin decoupling.

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